BOOK REVIEW / A pessimist's guide to the state of the Union: 'The Edge of the Union: The Ulster Loyalist Political Vision' - Steve Bruce; Oxford Univerity Press, 6.99 pounds

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The Independent Culture
REVIEWING Mary Holland and Michael Whyte's documentary Shankill, part of Channel 4's recent series The Long War, the Independent TV critic noted how unusual it was that 'someone bothered to spell out a basic difference between the way the communities are shaped by their systems of belief'. That is the point that Steve Bruce has been trying to impress upon us since his remarkable study of Paisleyism, God Save Ulster], nearly ten years ago.

As a sociologist of religion, Bruce did something which few outsiders have been prepared

to do: he took the Free Presbyterian church seriously, analysing it as a (fairly typical) Protestant sect rather than dismissing it as the passive vehicle of Dr Paisley's megalomania. This led him to some important conclusions. The conflict in Northern Ireland is essentially religious, and its intractability stems from the basic opposition of the sects involved.

As he reminds us in his new book - and we do seem to need reminding - Catholicism and Protestantism 'are not any two different religions'. Ecumenism may have eroded their antagonism in societies in which secularization has made religion marginal or irrelevant, but this is patently not so in Ulster. The essence of Paisley's church is anti-ecumenical, confrontational, instinctively rejecting compromise and relishing struggle (above all against 'Rome') as a test of faith and a proof of the status of Ulster protestants as God's elect.

This pristine commitment is a source of both strength and weakness. The repudiation of Rome generates an awesome determination, yet the fissiparous nature of the free churches ensures that this determination remains negative. Ulster protestants can agree to 'say no', but cannot engage in what is conventionally regarded as 'politics' - the art of compromise. So they get a bad press, and not only in the news media. Academics have fully shared that fastidious distaste for 'foul Ulster Tories' expressed by Lord Randolph Churchill (author of the deathless slogan 'Ulster will fight, Ulster will be right') a century ago. Steve Bruce, apparently to his own surprise, has been enrolled as one of those rare intellectuals willing to give loyalists a sympathetic hearing.

The advantage of this is that loyalists have talked to him 'as one of their own'. He relishes the characteristically brutal terseness of demotic Ulster talk, and reports enough of it direct - expletives definitely not deleted - to ensure that his book would have been unprintable a generation ago. Though it will certainly open him to the charge of having written a loyalist apologia, the point of this is to reinforce his insistence that outsiders, the British Government above all, have not taken the 'loyalist political vison' on board.

This is partly due to the famously inarticulate nature of Ulster Unionism, a quality which Bruce's work tends to heighten. He thinks that Sarah Nelson's book, Ulster's Uncertain Defenders (1984) - practically the only other serious study of loyalist ideas ever published - exaggerated the significance of the few ideologists the movement has produced. For Bruce, the outlook of the paramilitary rank-and-file is wholly negative.

Indeed, 'vision' seems too upbeat a term for the pervasive sense of decline, suspicion and demoralisation which Bruce reports. Only the careful addition of the adjective 'dismal' in

his second chapter really conveys the relentless pessimism of loyalist reactions to political

change. Bruce's lack of interest in what some would think of as constructive political ideas - integration is never mentioned and Ulster independence is scouted as an irrelevance - reflects the problem of people who cannot believe in any tolerable outcome.

The problem for loyalists is that their aspirations do not fit contemporary political labels. Their lodestars - the constitution and the crown, 'being Protestant' - are no longer of vital concern to their putative fellow-nationals, the British. Here, as in his earlier study of Protestant paramilitaries, Bruce calls the defensive Unionist attitude 'pro-state', but he shows time and again how thoroughly the British state is distrusted.

Bruce is no admirer of nationalism in general or of the Irish republican movement in particular, but his chief target is the incoherent, pointless, doomed policy of the British government. The simple reason for the vacuity of British policy, especially the Downing Street Declaration, about which he is scathing in the extreme, is that 'when all else is said and done, most British governments have not believed in the Union'. This puts them in a position whose falseness is obvious to everyone except themselves. The declaration that Britain has 'no selfish interest' in this part of its territory, coming as it did from a government ostentatiously battling for British interests against the vague threat of Europeanism, could only be read one way by Unionists.

Of course it is regrettable, and not only to the British and Irish governments, that the majority in Northern Ireland pin their hopes on the most traditional conceptions of statehood, rather than embarking on a pioneering venture into some kind of 'shared sovereignty'. But not all people are adaptable and not all solutions are possible. Bruce reiterates his view, first expressed in God Save Ulster], that it is a fatal error to speak of a 'Northern Ireland problem', because this implies the possibility of a 'solution'. He may be wrong in seeing 'his' loyalists, a fairly small group of paramilitaries and evangelicals, as representative (when push comes to shove) of the Unionist mainstream. But the transparent simplicity of their aim - 'My grandfather joined the UVF to prevent a united Ireland and I joined the UDA for the same reason' - gives greater weight to his confessed pessimism than to the contrived optimism of recent peace processes.

If he is right, the implications for the government are grim. For its policy to be rational, it must either swallow Bruce's prescription, accept that no concessions it can make will ever satisfy nationalist aspirations, and take the Unionist side; or abandon its fictitious commitment to the Union. Since it can do neither, the outlook remains a bleak one. This book is unlikely to cause pleasure in official circles, but it should be read by every voter.